Dystopias and Utopias of Women, Peace and Security

Original article by Laura Shepherd on 23 July 2016 for MUNPlanet

This article is published as part of Fridays With MUNPlanet and its series dedicated to world politics and the United Nations. Laura Shepherd (UNSW Australia, and LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security) discusses the possible futures for the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and proposes two different visions for the next decade. The author argues that in a “dystopian” version, one could see ” integration of WPS and CVE further narrowing the scope of the kind of violence we are allowed to talk about preventing,” while in a “utopian” scenario  “we might dare to dream that in another decade of WPS activism, analysis and implementation, we might see moves towards peace, disarmament, and demilitarisation.”
 

In 2015, the international community, including national and international civil society organisations and various United Nations entities, celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. The WPS agenda derives from UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, which was passed in October 2000 as the first of eight resolutions addressing the gender dynamics of peacemaking, peace building, and international peace and security; all eight resolutions are binding on all UN member states and other UN entities. UNSCR 1325 articulates three priority issues: the prevention of violence, particularly sexualised and gender-based violence; the meaningful participation of women in peace and security governance; and the protection of women’s rights and bodies in conflict and post-conflict situations.

Since the adoption of UNSCRC 1325, the Women, Peace and Security agenda has developed in divergent, contested, and sometimes challenging ways. There has been extensive research on the implementation of the resolution at the state level, which usually takes place through the development of National Actions Plans (NAPs), sometimes supported by Regional Actions Plans (RAPs). Many scholars have commented – some with alarm, some more sanguine – on the bifurcation of the WPS agenda into ‘protection’ versus ‘participation’ machineries, noting that the former dimensions seems to enjoy much greater institutional support at present, both within and outside of the UN. (This is perhaps a result of the gendered logics of protection that make it easier, conceptually, to accept a peace and security governance architecture that positions women as victims of violence rather than agents of change.) And, both within the academy and in policy circles, speculation has begun regarding ‘next steps’ and new directions of WPS policy and practice.

This short essay proposes two different futures of Women, Peace and Security: a dystopian and a utopian vision. The value of telling these different stories is to tease out the directions in which the WPS agenda might travel over the next decade, as we look back at and learn from the last decade and a half of activity in this space. My analysis is informed by a workshop that Paul Kirby and I co-hosted at the London School of Economics and Political Science Centre for Women, Peace and Security, in March 2016. Over fifty delegates attended from across five continents; there was a mix of government officials, policy-makers, practitioners, advocates, activists, and academics, all of whom brought fascinating insights into the current state of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, its attendant challenges and ongoing concerns.

Drawing out some of these concerns, it is possible to sketch out a dystopian view of the future of the Women, Peace and Security agenda. One of the themes that emerged related to the integration of the WPS agenda into the realm of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Anchored in the most recent WPS resolution, UNSCR 2242 (passed in October 2015), there are moves to bring together the two policy domains. Three paragraphs of the resolution are devoted to explaining how the WPS and CVE agendas could align better, with priority given to mainstreaming gender in the operations of the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) and the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) (OP 11), calls for better data collection in this sphere, and ‘the participation and leadership of women and women’s organizations in developing strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism which can be conducive to terrorism’ (OP 13). The latter has raised concerns within various communities of scholars and practitioners about the instrumentalisation of women and the WPS agenda in service of CVE. Moreover, given that – as noted above – there have already been issues raised about the bifurcation of the WPS agenda into protection and participation, there has already been a diminution of violence prevention as a core ‘pillar’ of the agenda; a dystopian vision sees the integration of WPS and CVE further narrowing the scope of the kind of violence we are allowed to talk about preventing.

Further, under the banner of participation, there have been critiques raised about the ways in which women’s agency is recognised. While there has been an identifiable discursive shift within certain UN institutions, to include the representation of women as critical agents of change in the conflict and post-conflict environments, the constitution of agency still deserves attention. In this dystopian future of Women, Peace and Security, we might see participation fixed to the activities of women in the economic sphere through the evacuation of power from discussions of the global political economy and the interpellation of individual women into the subject position of economically empowered entrepreneur in ways that diminish the social dynamics of WPS.

Finally, and most visibly in mainstream political discourse, this dystopian vision of the future of WPS could include even further reduction of the holistic agenda to a narrow and singular focus on sexualised violence. Per most media coverage of WPS-related initiatives, there is an undue – even salacious – focus on sexualised violence in conflict that goes hand-in-hand with the continued expansion of the protection ‘pillar’. This functions to diminish the constitution of women as agents of change, as outlined above, as well as obscuring from political discourse sexualised violence perpetrated against men and boys through the perpetuation of the tired trope of the broken, bleeding, violated woman as the subject of peace and security discourse.

But we can also conjure a utopian future for Women, Peace and Security; we can dare to dream ‘beautiful revolutionary dreams’. This story has very different themes than does the dystopian account sketched above. One of the persistent issues raised by WPS activists relates to adequate funding for implementation initiatives. The 2015 Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 included a full chapter on financing (Chapter 13) and in early 2016 a new mechanism was launched by which funding can be raised and distributed: the Global Acceleration Instrument, which ‘aims to stimulate a significant shift in international financing towards women’s participation, leadership and empowerment in crisis response and peace and security settings’. A possible utopian future builds on this initiative to include dedicated resourcing for the WPS agenda at the UN and the committal of annual budget lines at the state level to WPS implementation. Resourcing might improve data collection across the UN as well as securing ongoing staffing for WPS posts across the UN system, both at HQ and beyond.

Image: A Hmong woman and her baby in the village of Sin Chai, Viet Nam. UN Photo/Kibae Park, via Flickr.
 

In this utopian future, we might learn how to acknowledge and respect women living and working with WPS principles and tools as, to use Brooke Ackerly’s words, ‘cross-cultural theorists’. Token audience is given to women from civil society during Security Council Open Debates on WPS themes, but there is no real sense in which their contributions constitute valid and authoritative knowledge about peace and security governances. There are several studies about the co-optation of women’s political activism in service of a blunted and depoliticised – even militarised – Women, Peace and Security agenda. The utopian view sees hierarchies of knowledge and knowledge production undone (which might mean giving up, or at least try to resist, the seductive pleasures of being recognised as ‘experts’ in this field).

Finally, we might see a return – perhaps even through the vehicle of the WPS/CVE alignment discussed above – to a discussion of violence prevention. Cora Weiss, President of the Hague Appeal for Peace and co-drafter of what became UNSCR 1325, made a speech in 2011 noting that the primary purpose of the push to eliminate conflict-related sexualised violence must not be to ‘make war safe for women’. This much-quoted sentiment encapsulates the principles espoused by the transnational women’s peace advocacy networks working on the WPS agenda: that UNSCR 1325 and subsequent resolutions should not legitimise or normalise war, but rather the agenda should support the demilitarisation of society and facilitate the development of anti-militarist politics of peace.

We might dare to dream that in another decade of WPS activism, analysis and implementation, we might see moves towards peace, disarmament, and demilitarisation. Instead of celebrating how Security Council Resolutions aimed at managing the flows of small arms and light weapons include ‘good gender language’, we might instead be celebrating the cessation of trade in arms that present such a clear and pressing threat to the international system’s most vulnerable and line the pockets of the global elites. Instead of hailing as a success for feminism the validation of women’s economic activity in the process of building peace, we might critically interrogate the narrow individualism inherent in this discourse that unreflexively integrates female ‘entrepreneurs’ into neoliberal modes of production and consumption and devise different social and political ways of being in the world. Instead of perpetuating the colonial dynamics of power that situate authority and expertise in the hands of the individuals and institutions of the global North, we might bring into being a Women, Peace and Security agenda that decolonises peace and security governance, politics and practices across all domains: in society, in the academy, in the ‘halls of power’ at UN HQ.

These are stories we can tell now: dystopian, and utopian, stories. In ten years’ time, we may yet be telling different stories, stories that we have not yet begun. These stories won’t end in ‘happy ever after’ but they might be stories that nonetheless inspire hope, and the dreaming of more beautiful revolutionary dreams.

Laura Shepherd is Associate Professor of International Relations at the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UNSW Australia. She is also Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security. Laura’s research focuses on gender politics, international relations and critical security studies. Specific research interests include peace and security governance, the politics and practices of United Nations and the intertextuality of politics and popular culture. Laura is particularly interested in poststructural accounts of gender, International Relations and security and much of her work investigates concepts and performances of authority, legitimacy and power through these theoretical frameworks. She has a strong interest in pedagogy and pursues pedagogical research primarily with a focus on learning-oriented assessment. Twitter: @drljshepherd
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Cover Image:
A woman poses in front of a graffiti representing the sun on the occasion of the observance of the World Mental Health Day.6/Oct/2008. Dili, Timor-Leste. UN Photo/Martine Perret, via Flickr.

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